Going For The Green

At Callaway Gardens, environmentally-friendly conference facilities respect the resort’s conservationist roots.

Callaway Gardens is blossoming. And we’re not just talking about its signature flower, which each spring puts on a stunning display over a 40-acre “Azalea Bowl.”

What began as Cason and Virginia Callaway’s wildflower preserve in the 1950s has evolved from a conservationist’s dream into a conservationist resort. The place everyone refers to as a garden actually comprises 13,000 acres, a nature preserve, a lodge, hotel, cottages, villas – and recently, Longleaf at Callaway – a development of permanent homes. There’s also the Virginia Hand Discovery Center, the Sibley Horticultural Center and the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center, where visitors can wander among scores of native and exotic butterflies. There’s Robin Lake Beach, the country’s largest manmade inland beach, the golf courses, and of course, miles of roads, bike and hiking paths wandering through unspoiled flora and fauna.

Cason and Virginia’s youngest, Bo Callaway, now 80, boasts, “Sea Island, Asheville – there’s nothing anywhere that’s got anything better than we’ve got here.”

The heart of this sprawling not-for-profit enterprise is still Cason’s “laboratory,” a neatly cultivated semicircle that pays tribute to his progressive farming techniques, back in the days when sawmills were reducing the dense forests around rural Pine Mountain to stumps. Callaway’s agricultural philosophy helped Depression-era farmers diversify their crops beyond cotton, and influenced farmers and backyard gardeners for years to come. (Until recently, “Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden” served as a backdrop for the PBS program “The Victory Garden.”)

Cason’s political debates with part-time neighbor Franklin D. Roosevelt helped shape the career of his son, Bo, who in 1964 became the first Republican congressman elected from Georgia since Reconstruction. Today Bo Callaway continues the conservation-minded work his father started. A 1995 Georgia Trend story by Millard Grimes quotes one observer of the Callaways’ splendiferous projects for showcasing nature: “This shows what God could do if he had money.”

Thankfully, the changes at Callaway – most recently, the addition of an upscale lodge with luxury spa, year-round heated pool and a complete renovation of the fine dining restaurant Gardens – keep Cason’s dream alive. Callaway’s Lodge is the first and only LEED-certified conference center in the country. This “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” award from the U.S. Green Building Council measures applicants’ water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, as well as innovation and design process. The new facility addresses two key groups: vacationers seeking luxurious accommodations and executives searching for corporate retreats.

Still, the evolution to include pricier digs doesn’t leave anyone out. Vacationers and day-trippers can still enjoy Callaway at almost every price point.

Touring the new spa with wife Beth, Bo, who is chairman emeritus of the Callaway Foundation, which owns the gardens, tells this story: “A guest came up to me yesterday, telling me how much he liked the place. I asked him where he was staying, and he said the Mountain Inn,” Callaway’s first hotel. “I asked him what rate he was paying there. He said $69.” Callaway grins broadly, his shaggy brows like Spanish moss. “You need that. You’ve got more Chevrolets than Cadillacs.”

Luring Corporate Retreaters

However, Callaway has clearly provided additional parking for the Caddys – especially those driven by visiting executives.

Many of Callaway’s recent upgrades will entice even more of them, especially those seeking sites for corporate retreats. The new Lodge (formerly the Southern Pines Conference Center) adds 150 deluxe guest rooms and suites, with 32” flat-screen TVs, hard-wired and wi-fi internet access, original signed Athos Menaboni prints, 310-threadcount linens with feather duvets and pillowtop mattresses. Every room has a balcony and view of either the pool and terrace, or Callaway’s wooded preserve. The arts-and-crafts décor pays tribute to the resort’s rustic environment. Rates range from $229-$269 (March 16-May 31, during the prime azalea-blooming season) and $209-$261 (June 1-Aug. 31).

While the new rooms will undoubtedly attract many for the luxurious environment alone, attaching them to the conference center’s business-friendly facilities addresses complaints from corporate groups who, until now, had to walk or drive from Callaway’s nearby villas and cottages. The adaptable conference rooms, easily made larger or smaller or combined with others, take full advantage of Callaway’s wooded environs, with huge windows and sweeping views, many open to landscaped courtyards.

And if you’ve ever sat down in a seminar, only to realize you’d stumbled into the wrong one, Callaway’s conference center floorplans allow “multiple, simultaneous meetings, without having to share facilities,” says Rachel Crumbley, Callaway’s corporate relations manager. Each meeting group has its own meeting room, as well as its own restrooms, phone banks and lobby. In other words, you’re a lot less likely to get lost.

In January 2005, the Noble Management Group, which operates some 6,000 luxury hotels and resorts, began overseeing Callaway’s day-to-day operations; this has brought a new level of professionalism to the nonprofit, Crumbley says, while maintaining the heart of Callaway’s philosophy.

More important than the newness of the conference center’s physical “body” is, perhaps, its preservation of Callaway’s “soul”: Deciding to go for LEED certification is easier for new buildings, as the design can incorporate such details as “walk-off mats” (which clean dirt from incomers’ shoes) from the get-go. Retrofitting the already-constructed conference center was “more of a challenge” than beginning afresh with the Lodge’s new rooms, Crumbley says.

“The process begins before the first bulldozer arrives,” says Director of Horticulture Hank Bruno. “Site selection is important – you want to make the footprint as small as possible, without destroying the environment. You want to make the parking lot as small as possible, to avoid runoff.” However, some urban-oriented LEED guidelines aren’t as important for Callaway, such as light-pollution.

“Our location is so dark our guests sometimes feel they’ve been dropped on another planet,” he says. But helping the conference facility’s energy conservation by planting deciduous vines over the oversized windows – in summer, the leaves and blooms will shade and cool the interior; in winter, the bare plants allow warming sunlight to stream in – is a LEED certification point that underscores Callaway’s motto of “connecting man and nature.” Even the signs in the conference center’s hallways that point out the natural materials and conservation policies earn points, because they help educate the general public. Ditto the signs over the waterless urinals in the men’s rooms, that say “we save 30,000 gallons a year by doing this,” Bruno says.

Callaway’s recreation facilities, perhaps especially its three golf courses, have long lured weary executives. Mountain View’s 18-hole course was the site of the PGA’s Buick Challenge 12 times; tournament players included Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh (as well as a practice round for brand-new pro Tiger Woods). Golf magazine and Golf Digest both rate the course as among the nation’s best, and USA Today rated Mountain View’s 15th hole the fourth-hardest par-5 on the PGA tour.

Callaway also creates custom outings for corporate groups, which include everything from “ropes courses” that teach team-building and group trust to beach picnics and barn dances, or even a “Birds of Prey” demonstration by Callaway’s wild bird handlers, showcasing focus and determination.

“We use a facilitator to coordinate team building,” says Perry Grice, Callaway’s director of sales. “They’ll work with teams to accomplish trust by having them get on a high wire and [having] others hold you on a rope. Or you have to fall backward, trusting the team will catch you. Or your goal is getting over a wall – how do you get the last person left back?”

If you’ve ever attended a corporate retreat, you’ve undoubtedly had to do the exercise that says you’re stuck on an island with a life raft and 10 items, and your job is to rank their importance. At most retreats, that exercise takes place on paper, often in a windowless conference room. At Callaway, that exercise happens “with a real canoe, on a real beach,” Grice says.

Hot Dogs, Ice Sculptures

Too often, food is a business meeting afterthought, selected for its ease and speed rather than comfort. But food and beverage director Tony Labatos says Callaway’s meeting planners’ motto is “You dream it, we make it.” Like Crumbley, who stresses the importance of pre-conference planning with Callaway’s facilitators, Labatos says the quality of your corporate retreat may relate directly to the amount of time you spend planning it with Callaway’s facilitators.

Labatos has handled everything from feeding 6,000 guests Thanksgiving dinner, to hosting five weddings in a single day, to prepping a small cookout at one of the cottages. His crew has also served cocktails for the Birds of Prey demonstration, set up a 30-foot grill and bonfire at Callaway’s historic barn, and catered “walk-around receptions” at the Butterfly Center and Horticulture Center.

“Have food, will travel,” he says. “We do anything from hot dogs and skewered beef to white-glove service and ice sculptures. This week, we fed 800 in the circus tent,” a permanent structure used by the Florida State University Flying High Circus, which puts on shows each summer. He can serve up a Low Country boil or a Cinco de Mayo feast, but more often, he’s making sure food is served and cleared promptly, so work can continue.

The restaurants have changed over the years, too. Labatos is proud that the Piedmont Dining Room, recently redefined as a high-end steaks and chops house, “has become a local favorite.” In addition to its interior renovation, he says the new Gardens restaurant will feature entrees like Georgia trout over horseradish mashed potatoes, pan seared with a beurre blanc red onion marmalade, and molasses-brined bone-in pork chop over mashed sweet potatoes and haricots vert.

Virginia and Cason might not recognize what began as their own vacation site, which they called Blue Springs. Nor will the execs who were delighted to find their cell phones didn’t work at Callaway. “Before long, they started complaining,” says Grice. “They’d say, ‘It’s great to be away from the city, but my phone doesn’t work.’”

“We have great service now,” he says.

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